Trump and Putin shaking hands
Credit: Shealah Craighead/Flickr

On September 7, 2016, Donald Trump gave a foreign policy speech in Philadelphia. Boasting that “just yesterday, 88 top generals and admirals endorsed my campaign,” he explained that “immediately after taking office, I will ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS.” It was a departure from his prior rhetoric because, beginning in May 2015, he had been consistent in asserting that he had a secret plan to defeat ISIS that he couldn’t reveal lest he tip off the enemy. Just the day before, Hillary Clinton had given a speech in Tampa where she insisted that Trump had no actual plan. In his Philadelphia speech, Trump was essentially acknowledging the truth of Hillary’s charge by saying that he would have to ask his generals for their plan once he became president.

Predictably, Fox News ignored this reversal and praised his speech.

CHARLES HURT: The most important point on there is the first one, where he says that immediately after taking office, Mr. Trump will ask his generals to present a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS. What he’s doing there, and I think that he did a very good job of this, is he’s saying that he’s going to trust his generals to go after ISIS in a very forceful way. Donald Trump has impeccable timing. He is very lucky in this respect. And that is that Hillary Clinton is running for Barack Obama’s third term and as such he gets to run against her resumé, he gets to run against everything that’s going wrong in the world today. And as long as he stays there and just says, “I’m going to listen to my generals,” as long as he says that, he is going to beat her when it comes to military, foreign policy, and all that stuff.

HARRIS FAULKNER (CO-HOST): Well it’s interesting too because you start there, that’s exactly where President Obama has had so much criticism, the questions about whether he listens to the people who are the experts militarily. What are your thoughts?

MEGHAN MCCAIN (CO-HOST):…A lot of us have been asking for him to start showcasing what he’s going to do, and I take a lot of comfort in the fact that he would say he’d listen to the generals in the first 30 days.

As you can see, Trump received praise for his political savvy in saying he’d listen to his generals rather than continuing to insist that he had a secret plan. His shift in position also created a sense of comfort for his defenders that he might not be as incompetent as he seemed.

Now that we’re more than two years into Trump’s presidency, we can see how this has actually played out. The man Trump put in charge of defeating ISIS is Gen. Joseph Votel. Last week, during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Votel divulged that he was not consulted prior to the president’s December 2016 announcement that American troops would be pulled out of Syria.

The commander of US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said Tuesday he “was not consulted” prior to President Donald Trump’s December announcement that the US would withdraw its troops from Syria.

And despite Trump’s claims that ISIS has been defeated, Gen. Joseph Votel said the fight against the terror group is “not over” and warned ISIS could regroup after US troops leave.

“I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly we are aware that he had expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq, depart Syria,” Votel said during a Tuesday hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“So you weren’t consulted before that decision was announced?” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked.

“We were not, I was not consulted,” Votel responded.

Speaking from Oman, Gen. Votel made an appearance on CNN Friday in which he further clarified that he disagreed with the president’s actions.

The US commander who has been leading the war against ISIS told CNN Friday that he disagreed with Donald Trump’s decision in December to pull troops out of Syria and warned that the terror group was far from defeated, in a stark difference of opinion with the President.

Joseph Votel, the top American general in the Middle East, also said that the US-backed forces on the ground in Syria were not ready to handle the threat of ISIS on their own.

“It would not have been my military advice at that particular time … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly,” Votel said of the troop withdrawal announcement. “(The caliphate) still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”

Setting aside the spectacle of a commander in the field making an appearance on cable news in order to directly rebuke the commander-in-chief, what we can see here is that the Fox News crew should not have been comforted back in September 2016 when Trump insisted that he’d take his generals’ advice and follow their plans for defeating ISIS. Whether he was lying then or not, he did not keep his promise.

Instead he kept a different promise. In September 2015, at a time Trump was actively working on a deal to build a skyscraper in Moscow and at the same time President Obama was meeting in person with Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria, Trump announced “Let Russia fight ISIS.”

Once again, Trump demonstrates that the only promises he keeps are to Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t keep his promises to Fox News. He doesn’t listen to his generals. But he does what he told Putin he’d do.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at